In my post last week, I mentioned that film reels produced by the Truman and Dewey campaigns in 1948, quite differently received by the public, had a hand in turning the tide in Truman’s favor. For its part, television played a small role. Network newscasts reported on the ’48 campaign and covered election night, but with only roughly 35,000 homes with TV sets, influence was limited. That was the last election for which this can be said.
By the time Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson squared off, the country was quickly transforming into its post-war self. The economy was booming, suburbia had begun its sprawl, and the fireside chats of the 1930s were obsolete because the television had replaced hearth at the heart of many American homes. Firm numbers are difficult to find for 1952, but by 1954 more than 55% of American households owned televisions. Politics were ready for primetime. Election-wise, it would be another 8 years before a presidential debate would be beamed into living rooms, but Madison Avenue couldn’t wait that long. Enter on this scene one Rosser Reeves, marketing juggernaut.
Reeves is known in marketing circles for advocating the idea of the “unique selling proposition,” though you probably know him best for his pithy summary concerning where an M&M is and is not wont to melt. Two years prior to his work on the chocolatey treat with the hard candy shell, Reeves was hired by Eisenhower to create the earliest television ad campaign in American history.
Eisenhower had been on television earlier in the campaign, but it was on the stump and apparently none too impressive. Though well-known and revered as a war hero, he didn’t seem to translate to the new medium. A reviewer writing in a June 1952 issue of Advertising Age was unimpressed: “Mr. Eisenhower . . . looked a little old and just a little tired. In many shots, his face resembled a composite photograph of — of all people — Mr. Taft and Mr. Truman.” In a vigorous country, booming economically, but shadowed by the fearsome Red Menace, this didn’t cut it for a would-be leader. Thank goodness for ad men.
Reeves wanted to show Eisenhower responding warmly, but strongly to the concerns of average Americans. He drew up some questions, and Eisenhower’s answers, and then recruited average Joes and Josephines from tourists queuing up outside of Radio City Music Hall to read them on camera. In the end, forty spots were produced. They were not the slick messages that today’s candidates frequently tell us they approve of. Nor did everyone think they were even appropriate. Stevenson condemned Ike for demeaning the intelligence of the electorate: choosing a president was not the same as ”Ivory Soap versus Palmolive.” Maybe so, but history has shown Adlai to be off the mark. Eisenhower won in a landslide and the “Eisenhower Answers America” ads were the first step towards the more than half billion dollar we’ll see spent on TV spots in the 2012 presidential election.
(Note that the above video is mislabeled as made in 1956.)